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Quebec doctors who agree to help hard-pressed care homes describe 'shock'

Well-wishers left flowers outside a private nursing home in Dorval, west of Montreal, where more than 30 residents died of the novel coronavirus or neglect after overwhelmed caretakers fled
Well-wishers left flowers outside a private nursing home in Dorval, west of Montreal, where more than 30 residents died of the novel coronavirus or neglect after overwhelmed caretakers fled Eric THOMAS AFP/File
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Montreal (AFP)

As retirement homes in Quebec were being ravaged by COVID-19, a surgeon, an ophthalmologist and a gastroenterologist were among many medical professionals who volunteered to help overstretched staff with the care and feeding of their vulnerable residents. The experience left them badly shaken.

Dr. Yves Bendavid, a 49-year-old surgeon, responded to an urgent plea from the province's premier, Francois Legault, at a time when the fast-spreading virus was leaving the care homes desperately short of nursing staff.

Deployed to the Residence Biermans long-term care facility in Montreal on an evening shift, Bendavid said the scene awaiting him there came as a "shock": severe staff shortages, inadequate protective materials, even infected patients not wearing masks.

"The patients were dehydrated -- probably hadn't had water all day," he told AFP. "I thought I would be dispensing lots of medicine, and administering medical and nursing care. Instead, my biggest contribution was giving them glasses of water."

"They had sunken eyes, dry mouths, rough tongues and chapped lips," he recalled. "We were in a long-term care center in Montreal, and people were thirsty because of a lack of personnel."

On a single day, April 19, Bendavid prepared a body for a funeral home, served meals, changed patients' diapers and distributed medicine.

"I really didn't expect to be distributing medicine," he said, adding that it was a first for him. "It's really a task usually reserved for nurses, for security reasons." He said he worried that he might make a mistake in dosage.

- Jack of all trades -

Etienne Desilets is a gastroenterologist by training. But since April 19, he has put in 12-hour days, caring for his regular patients first, then volunteering as a nurse's aide in a retirement home, wearing a surgical mask, a protective headscarf and a light-blue lab coat.

"When the crisis began, what shocked me the most was to hear about places where they didn't have the staff to feed people," he told AFP.

He was shocked as well to learn of care facilities deserted by large numbers of staff, either because they had become infected or feared that they might be.

"That pushed me to become involved, for sure," said Desilets, who has been helping at the Chartwell retirement home in Longueuil, a city south of Montreal.

In Quebec province, which alone accounts for more than half of all coronavirus fatalities in Canada, more than eight in 10 deaths have occurred in retirement homes. Hardest hit of all has been the Montreal area.

Unable to fill all the staffing vacancies in these long-term facilities -- considered the "poor relations" of Quebec's healthcare system -- the province has even had to call in reinforcements from the Canadian army.

"As a young doctor, I would rather go to the front myself," Desilets said. "And if I have the misfortune of catching the virus, I know the chances of serious consequences are small."

In Chartwell, this 35-year-old family man has become a jack of all trades: he helps provide care, brings meals to residents -- and sometimes feeds them -- and distributes medicine ... along with words of reassurance.

He said he feels "supported" there and believes he is working in "safe conditions."

- 'Really just whatever' -

In contrast, Dr. Ralph Kyrillos, a 31-year-old ophthalmologist normally attached to a hospital, said he was "surprised" by the management of the pandemic in Quebec's Jeffery Hale long-term care center, where he began volunteering on April 20.

"On site, the norms, the steps taken to avoid an outbreak, it's really just whatever," he said, describing how some patients were allowed to go out and walk freely around.

"I wouldn't be surprised if the whole floor ended up being positive" for COVID-19, Kyrillos said.

After his stint at the home, he returned to his hospital center, where precautions were rigidly enforced and widely respected.

But until he himself received a negative test for COVID-19, the doctor said he often worried that he might have been exposed -- and might transmit the virus to his opthalmology patients.

Now he has had to put those fears aside. Kyrillos has been called to return to the Hale center later this month.

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